It wasn’t long before I was regretting my decision to move from the shelter of the creek bed before the wind died down. This was my first hardcore winter experience in northern prairie country, coming from the southland as I had. “Wind chill factor,” Pen explained. Apparently a cold day became a lethal experience when the wind was blowing like this, whisking powdery clouds of fine-grained snow along as it went. Who knew?
Had any of the men complained, I’d have had an excuse to turn back to our previous campsite, but no-o-o, they had to choose this as the time to act all stoic and solid, untroubled by the skin-ripping weather. But I couldn’t be seen as the one to wimp out first, now could I?
So on we went, our horses taking it in stride, their heads down into the wind and their eyelids nearly freeze-crusted shut. Reminded me of that ancient Before painting by Charles M. Russell, The Last of Five Thousand, depicting a starving steer with its ribs sticking out, still on its feet but clearly doomed to freeze to death at any moment. Except there were four of us, or ten if you counted the saddle and pack animals. And it wouldn’t likely be me who was the last thing standing; I was ready to drop here and now, and the sun we could see in fits and starts between the stinging blasts of nasty weather wasn’t even to its midday zenith yet.
Maybe the butte would have a place of shelter on the lee side.
Except we were on the lee side, for cry-yi. The gale spat straight in our faces more often than not, in between dips and swirls as it darted about like a prize fighter, working the angles to see where it could best get in a jab here, a right cross there, maybe even just a wild yet deadly haymaker.
Pen pulled his horse to a halt. I’d have run right into him, my eyes blinking and tearing like they were, but my horse had more sense. It stopped with its head practically touching the lead animal’s tail, letting the other horse’s rump break the wind a little.
As opposed to just breaking wind a little. Heh. Not funny. Nothing was funny right now.
I worked the reins, tapped my mount’s ribs with my right boot, and pulled up alongside our point man. “What’s up?”
Except it came out more like, “Wadduh?” Dang, my lips might be frozen.
“Hear what?” Garber’s tone was serious. Now that I’d blinked enough wet away from my eyes, I could see his expression was serious, too. But I couldn’t hear anything but that blasted wind…and then I did. “What–is that a dog?”
“I’m guessing.” There were no domesticated canines at Fort 24, or in the mountains around the settlement, but we’d all run across a rare feral dog pack a time or two. Vicious, dangerous, treacherous. But rare because, as it had been explained a time or twenty, male dogs didn’t hunt for their nursing bitches like coyotes and wolves did for their mates. As a result, the vast majority of dog lines had died out in a hurry after the fall, few pups surviving to adulthood.
But some did. Man’s best friend adapted as a species, suffering catastrophic losses along the way, but adapt he did. Not the little lap yappers; those were extinct, nothing but ridiculous memories in the minds of the few remaining human Survivors, good for cautionary tales told to children and little else. The bigger beasts, though, some of them pulled through, a rare daddy Dane or German shepherd making the adjustment, following Darwin’s law, raising his kids the right way. None of them were distinct breeds anymore; they’d interbred with coyotes and even wolves, mixing DNA until the current incarnation of wild dog out there was something the world had never seen before. They were more plentiful down south, running the swamps, hunting everything from rabbit to deer to man and doing it for sport as much as for meat, vicious killers that put the sensible wolf packs to shame.
“Feral pack?” I didn’t much relish that thought. Some of the coastal packs, down among the cypress and sawgrass, numbered in the dozens. My father’s gang had once tangled with a pack of more than a hundred, the horde being put to flight only after Kahn and his men had dropped thirteen of them. I’d been a little kid at the time, huddling in our house wagon with my mother. The experience had left an impression.
Pen took his time answering. He studied the sounds for what seemed a long time, borne to us upon the slashing wind. At least we were downwind. I never thought I’d be blessing the ground blizzard in our faces, but this beat them sensing us before we sensed them. By a long shot. “Don’t think so,” our point man said finally, rubbing his hands together absently, automatically trying to keep some feeling in them, keep the blood flowing. “They sound like they’re hanging in one place and their barking sounds like random B.S.”
“If not feral, then….” I stared ahead, willing my worthless eyes to see a half mile or more through the snow. Maybe a mile.
“Yeah. Then they have to be domesticated. Which means they belong to people, and those people are right smack dab dead ahead of us as we speak. The question is…”
“Who are they?” I finished his sentence. “How many are there? Have we stumbled into deep doo-doo or is this an opportunity?” Doo-doo. Couldn’t believe that term had come out of my mouth.
We kicked ideas around for a while, but there was only one possible outcome and I knew it. Our path pointed closely along the south side of the butte. Swinging north to avoid the people ahead of us was not an option; the land sloped upward in that direction, leading to a low but utterly bald ridge that would expose us to the worst of the storm and any possible sentinels at the same time, with the snow cloud-drifting in our faces so that we couldn’t see at all. Camping on this side of the butte was even less attractive as an option. Yes, it looked like the wind would be blocked there, at least somewhat, but there was no cover, not a dip or a swale or even a healthy sage bush. Nothing but scree piled at the base of the mesa, waiting to mess with the hooves of horses and the boots of men alike.
Which left the south side, providing at least a little cover for our approach and protection from the wind. Sagebrush did grow here, some of it taller than my belt buckle. The land was broken, undulating with shallow nooks and crannies and depressions that an experienced sneaker could use to his advantage.
And I’d been a talented sneaker before I could walk.
“You guys hunker down right over there,” I pointed. “It won’t warm you up and I know waiting is colder than anything, but it shouldn’t take me long. Get down, stay off the horses so you don’t stick out like a pack of sore thumbs, just in case the wind suddenly quits on us. I’m going to scout ’em out, be back in a short.” Taking the Marshal’s own long gun, one revolver, and my belt knife, I slipped out of the saddle and ghosted ahead, bent low, crab-scuttling to keep the sagebrush well above my head.
The stranger camp was far closer than we’d thought, maybe a quarter mile, tucked right in next to the east side of the butte, nearly touching the sloping piles of scree rock at its base. Had the weather been clear, their dogs would have sensed us for sure. Still nothing but sagebrush for cover, but plenty of that. Paying attention to the wind, hoping it didn’t swirl around just the wrong way at the wrong time, I worked in closer, creep by creep–and no wisecracks the creep doing the creeping; I’ve heard ’em all, believe me–until I could see the whole shebang.
Which wasn’t much. Eleven, twelve…thirteen teepees, made out of…could that be gen-yoo-wine buffalo hides? Traditional lodge poles. Flaps all closed now, not a furball yapper in sight; they must have let a couple of ’em out to do their business or something, then let ’em back in…no, not inside. Huh. Looked like they’d gone traditional on the animal treatment, too. Pups were huddled up together, sharing body warmth ’cause they weren’t going to get any from the humans. Unless it was from the inside of the people’s bellies; the cook fires were going despite the wind. They’d hung a hide shield against the wind on two sides, enough to let the flames do their thing. The tripods were in place, supporting several sizeable black iron kettles, and those hides…yep, greasy puppy stew for supper. I was looking at an old school Indian village.
Or Native, or maybe Metis. Whatever, they’d pulled together enough like minded Survivors to start up a village at some point, reclaimed the nomadic ways of their ancestors. Had to be a real mix from many parts of the country, breeding as fast as they could; no one tribe would have had many people left after the Fall.
Hidden behind a helpful bush, my fast-blinking gaze fixated on those kettles. Man, I hadn’t eaten dog since I’d left the swamps. Feral dogs, those were. I wondered if the tame variety tasted any different.
Fate’s kind of a funny thing. We could maybe have looped wide south despite the weather, avoided this subsistence group entirely, and despite my lust for puppy parts, I’d about decided that’s what we were gonna do. But just then, just as I was turning back to rejoin my men, one of the teepee flaps opened and the Native cook stepped out to tend her kettle. She exited the portable residence smoothly, a trio of eagle feathers waving their approval. Those feathers hung from a lace lashed to a slender pole stuck in the ground, marking the tent of the Chief, maybe. With this setup, they would have to have a Chief. The girl might be his daughter, or maybe one of his wives, didn’t matter no which-way to me. Cherokee? Heinz 57 most likely, but her features looked a lot like the Cherokee gals I’d known, and I’d known a few. Long black hair right out of the stories, tied off in a sort of ponytail that hung clear to her dimples of Venus. Not that I could see her skin under that buckskin dress, but I knew those dimples were there. A bit stocky, built right, just the way I like ’em.
How many braves, though? How many warriors? The dogs would scatter when we charged, or we’d shoot ’em, or the horses would stomp ’em to death, but the men would fight. Maybe the women, too; there was no guarantee they’d gotten that traditional. If they had shoot guns in those teepees, even the element of surprise wouldn’t be enough for what I had in mind.
But no…no, they didn’t. That Chief’s teepee, in front of which the young squaw was industriously stirring that puppy stew while she added handfuls of something else–roots, maybe–that teepee and at least half of the others were lavishly decorated with scenes of the hunt. No war stories that I could see from my hide-a-bush, which made sense; there just weren’t that many humans around to kill these days. This bunch likely hadn’t needed to do battle with anybody in the few decades they’d been around, just pack up the lodges and drift along. But the hunt, the quest for meat, that was illustrated nicely indeed. Buffalo, deer, elk, white flanks the prairie antelope, even a bear…all killed with spear, bow and arrow, or in one case a long knife. That one was a bear and I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be winning.
No shoot guns, then. These were throwbacks to certain red men in the Before days, before they nearly got extinctified by us gunpowder-loving, smallpox-spreading, bison murdering, divide-and-conquering white folks. The throwbacks believed all the red men’s ills came from yielding to temptation, to lusting after the white man’s toys and in due course being corrupted by those same toys or the desire to possess them. Purists, they were.
Man, I purely love me some purists. They are so easy to stomp on.
With my plan so firmly in mind I didn’t even notice the cold, I headed back to the others. If we did this right, the Eagle Clan–as I’d named them, after the feathers hanging by the Chief’s hide palace–the Eagle Clan would cease to exist. We could catch them in a spreadfire, gun ’em all down and be done with it. Thirteen lodges was a lot, but Pen Garber and I, at least, understood firearms well enough to rain a storm of death on the unsuspecting village. Set the Dotsons up staggered, Joe on the left next to the sheer butte, then Pen, then Jay, then God of Thunder me on the right with the long rifle targeting them as they tried to escape into the brush. Some fools might even mount a charge, offering themselves up for slaughter. Could be a girl or two, even a pretty one, who caught lead in the process, but we ought to be able to salvage enough to keep us pleasured for a time. Haul them on with us, slave ’em up, have them do the cooking and such.
We’d keep the weapons away from the little she-devils, of course. Some girls never did get the message.
Strangely, the gang took more persuading than I expected. Pen Garber didn’t seem to mind the idea of gunning down a bunch of self-styled redskins, but he was worried the village might be tougher to take than I was letting on. That was logical; it didn’t hurt to be cautious in these matters, especially out here in the middle of a prairie winter. By far the worst reaction came from the Dotson boys. Turned out those two had scruples. Didn’t like the idea of hurting innocent folks. I could feel the rage boiling up inside me at that, the desire to just shoot both of them and leave them for the coyotes. They were pushing me to blow my top, waiting to see me erupt like one of those volcano mountains, bury Joe and Jay in the lava and be done with it.
A gang of two wouldn’t add up to much, though, so I got myself under control. They’d have to be persuaded.
“Gentlemen,” I explained, “there’s no other choice. Going around them is too risky and we for sure can’t just sit here till they decide to leave. Heck, they might be here till the snow melts in the spring.”
“Yeah, but still–”
“Jay, we’ll be doing ’em a favor, relieving them of worldly cares and all. They want to be all one-with-the-Earth spiritual, we’ll just help ’em get closer to the dirt. Them folks likely believe in the Happy Hunting Ground, so we’ll just help ’em get there. Besides, ain’t you hungering for a woman yet? Maybe several. See, we wing a few men and those sweet young things will slow down their own flight, try to help Daddy or Chief or brother or whatever, give us time to ride on in there and get hold of ’em before they hit the brush. Some will get away no doubt, and that’s okay. Let the weather count coup on them later. We take out the likely fighters, grab enough squaws, make ’em break down that Chief’s teepee and pack it on a travois. We’ll get more horses, a warm place to sleep whenever we stop long enough to make ’em set the teepee back up, and a belly warmer for each of us.”
“Boss,” Joe spoke up, “you’re talking genocide here.”
I snorted derisively. “Not hardly! That little village, those folks gotta be inbred as the Fugates of Kentucky in the Before times. Bet they’re humping daughters, nieces, sisters, the works.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t true, but my audience didn’t need to know that. “We’ll just spice up their gene pool some, take the best girls we can catch and knock ’em up along the trail to Fort Steel.”
All three of my men stared at me then. “Fort Steel?” Pen asked, slowly. “We’re heading to Fort Steel?”
Well, load up a feather duster and sneeze me a load, I hadn’t meant to let that out yet. Oh, well. Nothing for it. “Yep. And I suppose you’d all like to know why? We could be taking over that village before it gets too dark and we freeze our charlies off, but you figure this is the time I should explain myself?” My emotions were tamped down tight now; if they said the wrong thing, made the wrong move, I was ready to become a gang of one.
The Dotsons looked to Pen, silently urging my second in command to handle this. “You’re the boss, boss. I go where you say, when you say. Don’t ever doubt that. But…well, yeah, maybe the short version?”
“Hunh. All right. Five minutes, then we move. We’ve looped wide, far enough that we’ll miss the Fear Trace entirely. Take us another week or two to get back on course, but yeah, Fort Steel. They deal in slaves and we need business contacts. With a good month and a half on the trail ahead of us, we can have those chippies broken in right, likely pregnant, and trade them at Steel. We’ll come out of there with wagons loaded down with goodies, enough trade treasure to set up our own permanent camp. Likely recruit another man or two in the process. By the time the spring thaw comes, we’ll be squared away, ready for a profitable summer of raiding.”
I didn’t tell them who I intended to raid. There had to be another Fort somewhere within striking distance of Steel, a solid community wealthy enough to suit me. Stumbling across these nomadic Natives was a Devil’s blessing for sure, but once I’d located, let’s call it Fort Opportunity, we’d set up a hideout and raid both Opportunity and Steel. Just have to make sure there were no witnesses left alive to identify us, cover our tracks, lay a few false trails, that sort of thing. Steal horses from Opportunity and trade them to Steel. Liberate shoot guns from Steel and trade them to Opportunity. We’d be middlemen, sort of like what they called wholesalers in the Before times.
That is, we’d do all that if I’d convinced my Demons. “That’s the short version,” I told them, looking each one in the eye. They held my gaze. The Dotson brothers didn’t flinch when Pen nodded.
We had us a plan.